Wednesday, July 27, 2011

'Captain America:The First Avenger'

'Captain America:The First Avenger'  (PG-13)  (3 stars)

Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving,  Stanley Tucci, Dominic
Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Sebastian Stan

"Captain America:The First Avenger" is a breath of fresh air after the last few weak superhero movies and the horrendous "Transformers 3". This is what an action movie should look and feel like and I won't compare it to a classic but it reminded me of "Raiders of the Lost Ark".  I am a little tired of the action movies and fantasies this summer. Everything is either so ordinary or so cluttered with bad action scenes that are a mess and make no sense. Here is an old fashioned action adventure and it is fitting that it is set in the 40's when movies were simply entertaining instead of over stuffed.

"Captain America" is part of "The Avengers" series of superhero movies coming after the fantastic "Ironman" and the so so "Thor". "Captain America" is probably the squarest of all these Avengers but the movie is almost as good as "Ironman" and much better than "Thor" and both Hulk movies. It tells the story of Steve Rogers who is a 90 pound weakling who enlists in the army. Steve is obviously too weak for the Army but through his determination and guts he is invited into a program run by Colonel Phillips. The Colonel  does not see anything in Steve and thinks a joke is being played on him. Through a secret government experiment Steve is transformed into a hulking warrior and becomes Captain America. Captain America is born to fight a band of Nazis led by the evil Johaan Scmidt who will be transformed into an ugly and scary looking Red Skull.

One reason I love this movie is that I am a sucker for good guys battling Nazis. I also love that the movie is set in the 1940's and the look of this movie is beautiful. The cinematography is crisp, the art direction is meticulous and I love how Captain America uses his shield as a weapon. There are some compelling and rousing action scenes as Captain America uses his shield as a weapon. There is also a novel ideal here that most action movies in the past few years have forgotten, it keeps the action simple and you can actually follow what's going on. There are also some cool and awesome planes and flight sequences that are thrilling.

"Captain America" also thrives on what all great superhero movies thrive on, an effective and dangerous villain. While Steve Rogers is transformed into the beefed up and powerful Captain America, Schmidt is transformed into the manaical and creepy Red Skull. Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) is just right as Red Skull. He doesn't ham it up, he is effectively dangerous and he brings just the right amount of menace. Chris Evans plays Captain America and he is good but he doesn't command the screen and he is not as memorable as Robert Downey Jr was in "Ironman" and that cripples the movie a little. Tommy Lee Jones is as always great with his usual dry humor and coolness. Jones could play this role in his sleep and besides James Garner I can't think of any other actor that is as natural or as easy to listen to as Jones is. Hayley Atwell plays the love interest and she is attractive but like Evans she needed to make more of an impression.

So what you have here is a fun, old fashioned action adventure that has a great look and wonderful special effects and action scenes. You have the best villain out of any of the "Avengers" movies in Hugo Weaving and small, funny performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci. The director Joe Johnston made another old fashioned superhero movie that I loved back in 1991 called "The Rocketeer" which I gave 4 stars to. That is a very under rated cult movie that also has Nazis as bad guys, some great cinematography and art direction and a sense of old fashioned fun. Johnston was the perfect choice to direct "Captain America". I also see a movie that is fun for the whole family to go to instead of this summer's crap that has been shoved down their throat lately.

P.S. If you stay in the theatre after the end credits you get to see a very amusing teaser trailer for "The Avengers" movie that comes out next year and teams Ironman, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America with a few others.

'Friends With Benefits'

'Friends  With Benefits' (R)  (3 stars)

Writers: Keith Merryman, David A. Newman and Will Gluck
Director: Will Gluck
Starring: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Bryan Greenberg

"Friends With Benefits" is a nice movie and that surprised me. When I usually call a movie nice it is not a compliment but in this case it is the movie's strength. The movie succeeds mostly on the good will and likability of it's two leads Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. Timberlake has become a comedy icon much to everyone's surprise with his wonderful appearances on "Saturday Night Live". Mila Kunis has lately become America's sweetheart much the same way that Julia Roberts was.

Timberlake proved he could really act in last year's best movie "The Social Network". Kunis held her own with the great Natalie Portman in last year's delightful thriller "Black Swan". In "Friends With Benefits" both prove they could do comedy just as well as drama. Both are extremely likable and what I loved most was the way they bounce lines off each other. They have such a winning and easy chemistry together. You want them to become a couple and for their relationship to last because you like them and believe they would be great together.

"Friends With Benefits" tells a story that was already told earlier this year with "No Strings Attached". That movie starred Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher as friends who don't want to commit to each other so they decide just to have sex. The earlier movie had a miscast Natalie Portman whose chemistry with Kutcher was terrible. Justin Timberlake is a much better actor than Kutcher and he just feels natural next to Kunis who is extremely adorable and sexy at the same time. "Friends With Benefits" has a better story and a much better cast. It tells the same kind of story about a couple, Dylan and Jamie, who meet through work, start to like each other but decide to just have sex because they don't have time for the emotional baggage that a relationship requires.

The supporting cast is also fun and likable including a very funny, small appearance by Woody Harrelson who now can start a wonderful career as a character actor. He plays a gay sportscaster and Harrelson fleshes out the role and has some classic lines that he delivers with cheer and energy. I also
loved seeing Jenna Elfman on the big screen. She is also likable and sweet as Dylan's sister and you feel that they are really family. There is also another solid performance by the best character actor in film these days Richard Jenkins. He plays Dylan's father who is in the early stages of Alzheimers and the movie starts to get a little serious. This subplot could have been maudlin and could have killed the movie's romantic momentum but thanks to the great Richard Jenkins I cared.

I expected "Friends With Benefits" to be a little raunchy and it has it's dirty moments but the movie is actually nice and light. It doesn't hit you over the head with bad romantic comedy cliches and bad, obvious jokes. It settles down and tells a story and it makes us care about Dylan and Jamie and all the people in their life. Timberlake and Kunis are extremely likable and the whole cast is engaging. You do know where the movie is heading and it is not a surprise but I didn't care. I had a good time and I was happy that I saw two very likable actors win me over. I wanted Dylan and Jamie to figure things out and I want Timberlake and Kunis to have very successful careers because they deserve it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2'

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2'  (PG-13)  (3 1/2 stars)

Writer: Steve Kloves  based on novel by JK Rowling
Director: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton,
Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter, Warwick Davis,  Jason Isaacs, Maggie Smith,
David Thewlis, Kelly MacDonald, John Hurt, Julie Walters

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a very satisfying wrap up to one of the most successful film franchises ever. It is an all action, thrill packed answer to Part 1's moody, dark atmosphere and character development. Along with Part 1 it becomes my second favorite movies in the series next to "Prisoner of Azkaban". The movies get better as they get darker, let's say it is really about some unique kids growing up to be responsible adults. Take out the wizardry and magic and it is a simple coming of age story and a great one.

I have liked all but one of the Potter films and "Order of the Phoenix" got a 2 1/2 star review from me. That is not a bad batting average and it makes the Harry Potter films one of the best film franchises next to the "Mad Max" movies, the "Rocky" movies and the first three "Star Wars" movies. The first two Potter movies were cute, had more humor than the later movies but I wish they had a better director than Chris Columbus because,while very good,  the movie's magic didn't match the magic of the books. I am sorry but the director of the over rated, horrendous "Home Alone" should not be directing Potter movies. The series became great with Azkaban which is the best movie of all of them but I couldn't have hoped for a better last two movies.

Part 1 was wonderfully dark with some beautiful scenes between the three main characters including a great kiss and dance sequence. The Potter movies succeed mostly on the rich writing by Steve Kloves who has done a great job of adapting the books. Kloves is one of my favorite writers and one of Hollywood's best and he adapts these iconic characters wonderfully. The directing gets better and David Yates does a great job in Part 1 setting a dark mood and getting us ready for the final battle. Part 2 is all action after a half hour of dull exposition and when it gets going it never stops. I love the sprawling and very well executed destruction of Hogwarts which is 100 times better than that horrible "Transformers 3" battle sequence. I also love the final battle where Voldemort and Harry use their wands to strike electric bolts at each other, I guess they are electric bolts.

Actually that final battle reminds me of the final battle in "Return of the Jedi" and to me Voldemort reminds me of the Emperor. Also "Deathly Hallows Part 1" setting up Part 2 is like the "Empire Strikes Back" setting up "Return of the Jedi". Though my favorite parts of the Potter movies are not the action and battles. I have loved seeing these three characters grow up before our eyes as I do watching the actors becoming mature and grow as actors. Harry is a good kid and we want him to over come evil. The movies are powerful because we care about the characters and we want Harry to fugure things out and vanquish evil. The dark Potter movies are better because there is something real at stake. I love the sly humor of the light Potter movies but I like the dark subject matter punctuated by humor more.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" could have used more humor but that is not the point of the movie. Part 2 is an action showcase that ends in a thrilling and fierce battle of good vs. evil. The Potter movies and books have been a wonderful shift in creating smart and intelligent material for kids instead of material that is dumbed down for kids. The wonder of a creative mind is a powerful tool for a child to have and the Potter movies enhance that tool. I like how Steve Kloves and most of the directors of these movies have captured what JK Rowling intended. I love the magic and darkness of the Potter movies, love the characters and Part 2 ends on a high note.

P.S. I was very impressed by an epilogue at the end of Part 2 mostly for how well they did with the make up and aging the young actors, it wasn't over done and cheesy. I only have one question and that is doesn't the epilogue hint at continuing the series in a new direction? Also I love how all the Potter movies have given all the legendary British actors rich work to do all these last ten years. Lastly, Hermione is my favorite character in all these movies and I think she is a great role model for young women, just saying.

Monday, July 11, 2011

'Horrible Bosses'

'Horrible Bosses'  (R)  (3 stars)

Writers: Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey,
Colin Farrell, Ioan Grufudd, John Francis Daley, Donald Sutherland, Julie Bowen, Wendell Pierce, Bob Newhart

"Horrible Bosses" is a vulgar male version of "9 to 5" and it is very funny mainly because of the writing and some flawless comic acting and line delivery. The movie weakens a little in the last half hour but I laughed a lot and I cherished the acting. The movie's plot is ingenious and surefire, three men fed up with their bosses who want them killed. The women in "9 to 5" had fantasies of killing their boss, these men actually try to have their bosses killed.

Nick, Dale and Kurt each have warped bosses and they all hatch a plot to kill each other's bosses. Nick is an executive in a fast rising company and is hoping to get a major promotion. The problem is that Nick's boss is an arrogant ass and terrorizes Nick. Dale is a dental assistant who is being sexually harrassed by his female dentist boss. Kurt's friendly boss passes away and the idiot, cokehead loser son of the old boss takes over and wants Kurt to fire all the fat people. The three men go get advice from a hitman played by Jamie Foxx who gives them advice on killing their bosses.

There are a series of very funny scenes dealing with the men trying to kill the bosses and they are all expertly played out by all the actors. Jason Bateman as Nick is becoming something special with his flawless facial reactions and delivery of dialogue. He is getting so great he is even surpassing Vince Vaughn as the master of line readings. When Bateman is in a good comedy no one can touch him. Like in a scene where Nick is being questioned about driving away from a crime scene there is a perfect reaction from Bateman and it is a small moment but something I remembered days later.

There are other special comic performances like Jennifer Aniston who has her best role and movie in years. She is required to carry out some very sexual scenes but she executes them perfectly, gets big laughs and never embarrasses herself. Jamie Foxx, like Bateman, gives one of the best performances in the movie and his facial reactions and line deliveries are just as flawless and special as Bateman's.
My favorite part of the movie is when the three men get together with Foxx and talk about the plan. Foxx's character's back story and advice is extremely funny and clever. Also the name of Foxx's character can not be told here but when his name is called in simple line readings all the time it is hilarious and I laughed every time. Kevin Spacey is also perfect as the arrogant boss of Nick and Spacey can do this role in his sleep but that doesn't make his performance any less special. Also funny is a unrecognizable Colin Farrell as Kurt's boss, Farrell is becoming a great comic actor.

The movie is stolen by someone who I predict will be a major comedy star and very soon. Charlie Day, from "It's Sunny in Philadelphia" is amazing and hilarious and his reactions and handling of the sexual harrassment material is flawless. He is the outraged character who has that perfect voice where when he gets mad he sounds like he is reaching puberty. Charlie Day gives a star making and wonderful comic performance and every scene he is in and every reaction he gives is comic gold. In the end of the movie when Day shouts at his boss and gets even it is a show stopping moment that will have the crowd cheering. I loved the small moments in this movie that were subtle more than I like the physical stuff. Though I loved the best physical comedy scene where Day tries to slide under a closing garage door.

This is a movie where if the acting wasn't so great it would have failed though the first hour of the movie is very well written. The special acting carries the day and Bateman, Spacey, Day, Sudeikis (the best use of him in a movie so far) and Foxx are comic perfection. I just want to watch the movie again for the acting and some of the brilliant dialogue and that is something you can't say about most comedies these days. It is not "Bridesmaids" funny, nothing will be for awhile now, but I liked it a lot.
It at least blows away "Bad Teacher" and "Hangover 2" for good comedy and you will have a fun time. Kudos to Charlie Day and Jason Bateman, these are expert comedy actors and possible future legends.

'A Better Life'

'A Better Life'  (PG-13)  (3 stars)

Writer: Eric Eason
Director: Chris Weitz
Starring: Damian Bechir, Jose Julian

"A Better Life" is a simply touching story of a father and son out of touch who through a series of events become closer to each other. There are no surprises in this movie and you know where it is going but the great, natural acting and powerful, heartbreaking ending make it work. It is also a much better look at our economy and the lower middle class who struggle in it then the phony and artificial "Larry Crowne".  It also takes time to comment on our border situation and immigration but the movie never preaches.

"A Better Life" tells the story of father and son Carlos and Luis Galindo who live in a very small house in California. Luis's mother has passed away so it is now just him and his father and Luis goes to school when he wants to. Carlos tries to make ends meet working as a laborer for a friend and when the friend goes back to Mexico Carlos borrows money from his sister to buy his friend's truck. Then Carlos can get his own labor help and travel to jobs in his truck. Carlos worries that Luis is getting involved with gangs and that he is skipping too much school. Carlos picks a laborer from a group on the street and when doing a job the man steals his truck.

Carlos goes back home drunk and despondent and Luis learns of his father's fate and becomes concerned. Luis goes with Carlos to find the truck and the man who stole it. Carlos is striving to achieve the American Dream starting his own business with his own tools and truck. What becomes more important later is that Carlos and Luis will become closer as father and son. What happens on Carlos and Luis's journey is predictable in spots but the movie is always intriguing. The acting is also special especially by Damian Bechir as Carlos. It is a very quiet, subtle and solid performance and it is beautifully played by Bechir.

The movie reminded me of an older, foreign classic from 1948 "The Bicycle Thief" by  Vittorio DeSica that I studied in film class. If you have not seen that classic you should check it out, it is something special. That movie dealt with a father and son looking for the man who stole the father's bike. "A Better Life" is similiar in storyline but that didn't bother me because I loved the performances, the realistic feel of the story and the beauty of the relationship between father and son. There is a beautiful, touching and powerful scene at the end where Carlos explains what he wants for his son in his future. It is expertly played by Bechir and it will probably make everyone in the audience cry. "A Better  Life" is a   touching, very well acted and directed movie that makes us feel something.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

'Larry Crowne'

'Larry Crowne'  (PG-13)  (2 stars)

Writers: Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos
Director: Tom Hanks
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Cedric the Entertainer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw,
Wilmer Valderrama, Pam Grier, Rita Wilson, Ian Gomez

"Larry Crowne" has two of our most exciting movie stars so why is it so lifeless, flat and dull? The blame has to go with writer and director Tom Hanks who has made a movie that just falls flat with a screenplay that is amazingly shallow. Nia Vardalos is the co-writer so maybe that is it because she is not a strong cinematic writer even with her over rated "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". The story fails on two levels, as a romantic comedy and as a statement on going back to school late in life and our economy.

I never believed one second of this movie and the writing is so conventional and phony. Tom Hanks plays Larry Crowne who is a mid manager at a Target like store and is a popular employee but has never been promoted. He is called in and his bosses inform him he is being laid off because he never went to college. He decides to enroll in community college and so far the movie establishes what it is trying to be. It is going to tell a serious story about a man in his 50's going back to college to better himself. He takes a few classes including the best part of the movie, an economics class taught by a hilarious George Takei.

He also takes a speech class taught by a pretty much miscast Julia Roberts. She hates her teaching job, has a lout of a husband and drinks a lot. Of course since she is Julia Roberts and Hanks is Hanks you know a romance will start. So you have a romantic comedy and a socially concious movie. The social part is weak in that I never felt that any of Larry's classes seemed real. Julia Robert's character has to be the worst teacher I have ever seen and her class the worst I have ever seen taught. Her class plan is like no other speech class I have seen and I have taken a few. In the end I couldn't see any way that Larry learned anything from this class. I also never felt by the end of the movie that larry became a better person either.
Now the romantic comedy part is even more dissapointing considering you have freaking Julia Roberts with Tom Hanks! There is the awkward first meeting, a meet cute later and then a scene where Crowne picks up his drunk teacher and gives her a ride home on his scooter. They go back to her place and kiss and it has to be the most awkward and dumbest kisses I have ever seen in a movie. Then when Julia Roberts has a witty one liner the movie's score drowns out what she says. Later, of course, Hanks and Roberts get together and I never felt any chemistry. They are totally wrong for each other and I never believed they were flesh and blood characters. I felt like they were sitcom characters and I did not root for them to get together.

The movie has not one real moment but there are some things that save it from being one of the worst movies of the year. I loved a subplot dealing with a very cute girl played by the engaging Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I actually wanted her and Larry to get together instead. Larry finds a scooter that will save gas and get him to work. He hooks up with the girl and her friends to form a scooter gang and she starts to fix Larry's cluttered life. She is the only real character in this movie that is stocked with cardboard sitcom characters even including the two main characters. I wanted a movie just about her because I was very bored with the two leads. Julia Roberts performance rises above the weak writing of her character. She is very funny but Tom Hanks is very dull in this movie and it is a weak replica of most of the characters Hanks has played in his career.

This movie wastes a perfect opportunity to be a winning romantic comedy with a message. How can you take two of our best movie stars and give them something that seems like it was written by a 14 year old. This is a by the numbers Screenplay 101 movie that drags along, has one cliche after another and has no pulse or comprehension of real life. Hanks is boring, Julia Roberts is wasted and you have a movie plot that can be seen on television for free much better on any sitcom. There is a better statement on going to community college on television called "Community" and it is extremely under rated. The comedy and romance are more real and fresh on that show and the characters seem like they connect. You know you are in trouble when your movie fails compared to a television sitcom.

If you want to see better movies like this rent a very fine little movie from 1983 called "Educating Rita" with Michael Caine and Rita Waters. Also for Tom Hanks as a writer and director check out the charming "that thing you do", a very fun movie that has way more life and charm then Hank's "Larry Crowne". Also you must watch "Community" on television which is a very funny show.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'

'Transformers: Dark of the Moon  (PG-13)  (1 1/2 stars)

Writer: Ehren Kruger
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington Whiteley, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, John Malkovich,
Kevin Dunn, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey, Julie Whad good actionhite

I like the original "Transformers" movie and was shocked to find that I liked it. It is the only Michael Bay movie I like because it wasn't self indulgent and Bay actually directed a good action movie with a good sense of humor. I am not surprised that he has taken a pretty decent first movie and made two terrible sequels to it because he is Michael Bay after all. Bay thinks he has a science fiction epic here with a whopping 2 1/2 hour running time and an hour long battle at the end that made me want to run out of the theatre. This is a soulless exercise that is hard to follow and hard to care about.

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" starts off actually pretty promising linking the first moon landing with the Transformers characters. That lasts ten minutes and then after that it is all downhill. The plot is basically just a battle of the Autobots vs. the Decepticons and Shia LaBeouf stuck in the middle of it. I forget Shia LaBeouf's character's name in the movie because there is no character development and they are all annoying. Also I can't really explain anymore plot because I checked out of this movie after a half hour. The movie ends on a huge battle and the destruction of the city of Chicago that gave me a huge headache.

I actually was impressed with how Bay captures the beauty of our city and without that quality this would be maybe the worst movie I ever saw. The problem was I loved looking at our great city but the battle is mind numbing and I couldn't follow any action. Bay is a terrible action director and he over stuffs his movie with too many explosions and hard to follow action scenes. The actors all shout, I couldn't care about anyone and I couldn't tell any of the damn robots apart from each other. The first movie was better because we got to know LaBeouf's character and the movie introduced us to each robot and gave them a sense of humor. Here the movie has not one ounce of humor save for the idiot parent characters. This is not a fun movie, it is depressing and too loud and dumb.

Michael Bay started this whole terrible trend in action movies and fantasies that I have repeated over and over again lately with my blog reviews in the last few years. I am sick and tired of these filmmakers throwing crap at the screen and action that has no rythym, clarity or thrills. Michael Bay thinks he is making an action epic here but his self indulgence kills this movie. Bay and others lately are coming off like they think movie goers are dumb so they can throw any crap they want at us and we will think we are being entertained. They think if we are not bombarded with wall to wall action we will lose interest.  Movies like "Super 8" are the antidote to this, they make us care for the characters, set up suspense and action that we can follow. I try to make my blog speak for movie goers that just want to be entertained and are not too critical but I challenge any regular movie goer to find this appealing or entertaining.

At least the love interest in this movie is better and Rosie Huntington Whiteley is more beautiful than Megan Fox and she can actually act. John Turturro, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand all show up for comic relief but they all shout and come off the worst I have seen each one look in their career.
I only like the first ten minutes of this movie and seeing Chicago blow up on a huge screen but "The Dark Knight" is miles ahead of it in using Chicago as a location. There is not one entertaining frame of film in the whole mind numbing 2 1/2 hours. This is one of the worst action movies I have ever seen and it is one of the most boring and depressing times I have ever had at a movie.

On my negative reviews I would now like to add a new feature and that would be to give better alternatives to the movies I don't like. With "Transformers 3" I would suggest you check out the first "Transformers" movie to see how good this franchise once was and in theatres now "Super 8" would be a better movie to see because you will actually have a fun time. What a concept!